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In the Latino Americano Mirror

Macho Camacho’s Beat

by Luis Rafael Sánchez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Pantheon, 213 pp., $10.95

The Emperor of the Amazon

by Márcio Souza, translated by Thomas Colchie
Avon, 190 pp., $2.75 (paper)

Burnt Water

by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 231 pp., $11.95

On Heroes and Tombs

by Ernesto Sábato, translated by Helen R. Lane
Godine, 496 pp., $17.95

Latin America is many places. They are not separated by a common language, as is often said of England and the United States, they are divided by fiercely diverging political and economic practices, but haunted by parallel pasts and nostalgias, and by what at times seems to be a shared culture. The differences are enormous. Cuba is not Chile; Bolivia is not Puerto Rico. A character in Ernesto Sábato’s On Heroes and Tombs sneers at a book entitled Latin America: One Country, and it is hard to quarrel with his scorn. One country: Buenos Aires is not even one city, it is, like New York, an unmelted pot of all sorts of nationalities. One hesitates to trust one’s own experience very far. A long time spent in Mexico is just that: a long time spent in Mexico.

Yet there are moments when things appear to come together, when the foreigner jumping to conclusions meets a native or two jumping in the same direction, and something of the kind happened for me with the books under review. I had been thinking about the odd sense of secondariness one finds almost everywhere in Latin America, the sense that reality and authority are always elsewhere. It is as if these countries had publicly resolved to talk about autonomy and progress and la patria but had secretly decided they could not live anywhere but in a mirror. Contortions of diffidence accompany proclamations of pride. I should say at once that the pride, where it is not mere arrogance or cruelty, seems to me a good deal more justified than the diffidence—indeed I think the diffidence is a cultural and political trap, an ugly obstacle to independent thought.

The mirror does not reflect only the old dominion of Spain and Portugal. Images of France, for example, stalk Latin America like the ruins of some empire of the mind: codes, constitutions, buildings, books, styles of administration. There are pockets of Anglophilia. In countries where the prehispanic culture was substantial, there is a strong loyalty to the time before the conquest. More recently, the United States has insinuated itself into all parts of this world, a heavy-breathing ogre for some and a dream of paradise for others. What these images and admirations and infiltrations have in common for Latin Americans is that they are not here, not now. “But what is our country really,” a character of Sábato’s asks, “save a series of alienations?” A series of betrayals, Carlos Fuentes would say.

Of course life in a mirror, as any reader of Lewis Carroll knows, is not less agitated or demanding than life in other places. There are abundant pain and terror and talent and affection in these shadowy realms. But it is a life that looks elsewhere, and what these four books have in common is an evocation of a world shut off in various ways from what is seen as full, unreflected reality. Life in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s Puerto Rico is inescapably banal; in Márcio Souza’s nineteenth-century Brazil it is a frivolous newspaper story; in the Mexico of Carlos Fuentes and the Argentina of Ernesto Sábato it is a broken or sundered coherence, an ungatherable Humpty Dumpty. This sense of things often figures in ordinary conversation in Latin America in the current, shoulder-shrugging use of the word underdevelopment. “Well, you know, we in the underdeveloped countries….” Fuentes calls Mexico City “the capital of underdevelopment.” Memories of Underdevelopment is the title of a very good Cuban novel, and of a film made from the novel.

There is a complicated irony here. The architects of Machu Picchu and the lake city of Tenochtitlán were not underdeveloped, and industrial or technological growth alone will not dissolve the feeling of secondariness, of life in the mirror. Underdevelopment in Latin America is a sly new name for an old condition: the climate of dependence, the memory of the colony. A long memory, since these are not new nations, most of them having been politically autonomous since the beginning of the nineteenth century. In some cases, as in Puerto Rico, the mirror is a fact, a mark of the power of the United States. In other cases it is a habit, a form of self-deprecation which lurks behind many of the continent’s most extravagant chauvinisms.

Puerto Rico, Luis Rafael Sánchez says in his funny, angry novel, is the “successive colony of two empires,” an “unprotected concrete island” flooded with American advertising and littered with memories of the distant dreams of Ferdinand and Isabella. It is not a part of North America where they happen to speak Spanish, it is a chunk of Latin America on our doorstep, closer than we think, a region of the mirror where our own faces loom extraordinarily large. There is a First National Festival of Drum Majorettes in this novel, and signs for the First National City Bank hang in the air. The founding fathers of Puerto Rico have mysteriously become Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and a pro-American senator draws up a resolution “in support of our glorious presence in Vietnam.” Yankee this is home is the slogan he has proudly promoted in answer to the more familiar and manifestly ungrateful one.

Macho Camacho’s Beat appeared in Spanish in 1975. It offers less a narrative than a situation, an image of a stagnant world. It is five o’clock in the afternoon throughout the book, the time of a famous poem by Lorca, only here we witness not the death of an adored bullfighter but the thoughts of people caught in or kept waiting because of a colossal traffic jam—borrowed from a story by Julio Cortázar, Sánchez wryly says, but horribly familiar to anyone who has tried to make even the briefest of trips in any one of a dozen Latin American cities. “The police prophetic services,” Sánchez writes, “predicted transitory difficulties in transit although they would be permanent between three and six o’clock.” The jam, he says, is “an active sample of the Latin American capacity for obstruction.” That is how they talk in the mirror, Sánchez has caught the tone exactly. They don’t really believe there are no traffic jams in Rome, for example, or that there are more obstructions in Latin America than anywhere else. They do like to evoke a special, disheveled destiny, a sense that their failures are more attractive, more peculiarly theirs, than anyone else’s successes. These are the tristes tropiques, as Sánchez playfully puts it, but the sadness is so charming that it hardly looks like sadness at all. That is part of the problem.

It is five o’clock in the afternoon, then, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The pro-American senator in the Puerto Rican assembly is on his way to see his mistress; the senator’s son is stuck in his Ferrari; the senator’s wife is parked in the waiting room of her analyst; the senator’s mistress is getting higher and higher on one cuba libre after another; and an idiot child’s mother, who may also be the mistress in another part of her life—we are not told—chats with her crony, Doña Chon. “Life is a bundle of dirty clothes,” Doña Chon says. The book’s twenty breezy chapters float through the minds and conversations of these characters, the voice of an irrepressible disc jockey looping between them:

And ladies and gentlemen, friends, here is the guaracha by the Tarzan of culture, the Superman of culture, the James Bond of culture, here is and we have here Macho Camacho’s ecumenical guaracha Life is a Phenomenal Thing.

This imaginary popular song, played on every radio in the book, is a figure of persistent movement to answer the congealed traffic jam. It bounces and bumps its way through the world of the novel like the spirit of misrule, provokes dancing and singing and humming, stirs up visions of glamour and sexual appetite. Macho Camacho is not a character in the book, despite the title. He is the man behind the music, a metaphor for the book’s energy and ambivalence. Life is not a phenomenal thing in this cramped colony, the lyric is lying to us, offering false, finger-snapping, toe-tapping comfort. Yet our response cannot be a simple refusal of the comfort, or anything like contempt for those who need it. Imitation happiness is better than real misery; and in some cases is the only available antidote.

The misery comes through, though. The senator’s mistress is drowning in fantasies; the senator himself, entangled in political cliché and preening masculine pride, can’t see beyond his election or his hairy chest; his wife hides among magazines and the consolations of her blue blood. A bomb goes off at the University of Puerto Rico. The senator’s son, out of the jam and doing eighty down the narrow streets of San Juan, appears to run over several women and some children, noticing only the mess on his gleaming car. The idiot child is taunted and maltreated by other children, and is finally terrified by the sight of his own face:

The Kid’s face poured into the piece of mirror, uncontained. The great head raised, held erect, sustained by ten hands. The Kid, waking to the horror of his own horror, tears a protesting whine wrapped in weeping from his throat. Then, all the pain of the world skewers him in the heart and the sky turns dull like an unwashed wooden floor: seamy and mean.

The Kid is everything that is neglected on this singing and dancing island.

There is a certain fussiness in the book, a weight of whimsy and cultural reference which at times looks like clutter. But it persuasively pictures a life of necessary and appealing evasions. In a recent interview Sánchez speaks rather sententiously of the “spiritual decomposition of Puerto Rico,” of “an environment contaminated by colonialism,” but that is not how his novel sounds. It makes those points, but it also catches the gaiety of much of the contamination, the humanity which lingers in those decomposing forms. It is a political work, as he says elsewhere in the same interview, but only because it points us toward realities which are ultimately political. We must change the world, “transform colonial reality in all spheres,” but we must also respect the dreams and songs cherished by the suffering while we do the changing, and that is what this lively, seductive, unsettling book does.

The Emperor of the Amazon was published in Brazil in 1977, and was an immediate best seller, a literary version of Macho Camacho’s guaracha which cost its author his job at the Ministry of Culture. Its subtitle says a great deal: The Life & Unprecedented Adventures of Dom Luiz Galvez Rodrigues de Aria in the Fabulous Cities of the Amazon, including a Farcical Conquest of the Territory of Acre, Set Forth with Perfect Equilibrium of Artistry & Ratiocination for the Delight of the Reader. The book is imitation-picaresque, and recounts, as it promises, the escapades of Don Luis, or Dom Luiz to give him his Portuguese title, a Spanish Casanova who, startled one night by an indignant husband, falls out of a window and lands in an international plot. The territory of Acre, situated at 9 degrees south latitude and 70 degrees west longitude, Souza precisely tells us, was disputed in the nineteenth century by Brazil and Bolivia, with the United States taking an interest in the Bolivian claims. Why this attention to a forgotten region in the upper, western reaches of the Amazon? The last sentence of the following grim paragraph, titled “The Metaphysics of Aristotle,” holds the answer:

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